Little to show from Obama's Japan trip as trade talks stall

BOTH sides held out to the very end, hoping for something to show for the first official state visit to Japan by a United States president in 18 years.

But finally, it was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who got what he wanted: mention of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the joint statement issued just before US President Barack Obama left here for Seoul yesterday morning after a three-day stay.

Washington also welcomed Tokyo's bid to enable its military to take part in collective self-defence.

Both leaders had hoped to clinch at least an in- principle agreement in their Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks. But despite round-the-clock negotiations, Mr Obama took away with him only a promise by the Japanese to continue with the talks.

The TPP is key to Mr Obama's policy of expanding US presence in Asia and also central to Mr Abe's economic reform efforts.

Mr Abe called the joint statement "epoch-making". "We were able to demonstrate both inside and outside Japan that our alliance will play a leading role in securing peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific," he said.

The left-leaning Mainichi Shimbun daily applauded the deterrent effect due to the Japan-US alliance in response to China's rising military power and its increasing maritime activities in disputed areas including around the Senkaku/Diaoyu isles.

But the influential Asahi Shimbun daily noted that both the statement and Mr Obama's public remarks were not quite what Mr Abe had expected. The statement merely says Washington's security obligations to Tokyo include the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which China also claims, and that the US opposes any "unilateral action" to change the status quo.

At their joint press conference, Mr Obama reminded Mr Abe of the US' strong ties with Beijing and told the Japanese leader it would be a "profound mistake" to let the territorial issue escalate.

But the visit hit a hitch as both sides could not agree on the joint statement early enough for it to be issued right after the leaders' talks on Thursday.

The Japanese laid the blame squarely on the Americans. Media reports said US negotiators held the statement "hostage" in a bid to force Japan to offer more concessions on the TPP.

US officials were even said to have threatened to drop the Senkakus from the joint statement if the Japanese refused to yield.

US Trade Representative Michael Froman was accused of jamming the talks by tabling new demands at the last minute and even lambasted by commentators on television as a "difficult" man to work with.

Meanwhile, unable to contain his frustration, Japan's Trade Minister Akira Amari told reporters: "If I were offered the same portfolio again, I would not want it."

The final text said the two countries were committed to taking "bold steps" necessary to achieve the TPP, but admitted there was still much work to be done before an agreement was possible.

Security expert Ken Jimbo of Keio University said Mr Obama's visit produced no winner or loser.

"The US reiterated the importance of Japan-China relations and called for further confidence-building. There was obvious pressure on Abe to take constructive steps towards China," he said.